Faithful Service During COVID-19:
A Virtual Mission Trip Primer
April 20, 2020
By Andrew Wicks
Mission Trips are a Staple of Ministry
For a generation, mission trips have been a critical cornerstone of faith formation for people of all ages - especially church youth groups. They’re a sacred time to be sequestered into an intentional community that lives, works, and worships together, not unlike early communities of Christians. Armed with the quintessential passage from Matthew 25, every year legions of the faithful go out to serve the least of their brothers and sisters, traveling to places far from home to experience the lives and challenges of other communities. In the midst of constructing buildings, serving meals at homeless shelters, and leading Vacation Bible Schools, participants form the tangible bonds of understanding that reshape them into people of deeper faith and justice.
As a former Congregational youth director, and the founder of Incredible Days, I’ve planned and led dozens of mission trips and other short-term immersive service learning programs over the years. I firmly believe it’s difficult to overstate the faith formation value of a mission trip. Trip leaders know that it’s common to get more face-to-face time with a participant during a single week of direct service than throughout the rest of the year. We always want participants to leave feeling like they’ve connected to a purpose deeper than themselves and found new spiritual insights. Each year we strive to make the trips bigger, better, and more meaningful, but the truth is we follow a pretty formulaic design.
In the fall, we promote the trip to the participants and gather names, email addresses and permission slips. We hold informational meetings and lock down reservations. After Christmas, the serious fundraising gets underway. Donations are solicited, baked goods are sold, cars are washed, numbers are crunched. In the weeks leading up to the trip we compete with a bevvy of other spring commitments, trying to get our participants trained and prepared. And then it all happens, in an amazing frenetic burst, with too little sleep, and heaps of busied bodies, and for a few awesome moments along the way, we run headlong into God. Sound familiar? That’s the formula. That’s how it happens every year… until the year of COVID-19.
So what do we do when flights are canceled and soup kitchens shuttered? What about a Virtual Mission Trip?
Exploring Virtual Mission Trips
A Virtual Mission Trip offers a way to continue your critical learning, service, advocacy and community building, even when you can not travel or gather in large groups. It engages participants in online learning and discussion, paired with personal service work and advocacy. Virtual mission trips integrate more planned learning prompts and advocacy work than a traditional mission trip, trading this off for the long days of direct team service that are difficult to arrange when groups cannot gather in person. They also use online tools for participants to connect and debrief with each other. They also cost a fraction of traditional mission trip costs.
Virtual Mission Trip Day 1 program
Planning a Virtual Mission Trip requires many of the same logistical arrangements needed to plan a traditional mission trip. You will still need to recruit participants, and commit to a particular time frame for your trip. You should plan some initial get-to-know-you and pre-trip education with your group, as well as post-trip follow up programming.
For the sake of convenience, many mission trip directors arrange a traditional trip with the help of a hosting agency that takes care of the local preparations for work, food, lodging, educational content, contacts, and more. If you already have an agency scheduled for your upcoming trip, they may be making arrangements to provide virtual programming in response to COVID-19. If not, it’s possible to put it all together yourself. You could also contact Incredible Days and have us lead a Virtual Mission Trip program for you.
The obvious candidates for a Virtual Mission Trip are groups which have planned mission trips and are now considering cancellation. However, there are plenty of other contexts where a Virtual Mission Trip might be a great idea. For churches wondering how to keep offering faith formation to both youth and adults under quarantine, a Virtual Mission Trip could
be the perfect answer. For congregations which have never put on a mission trip before (or maybe it’s been a while), this is a way to dip your toes in the water and build a cohort for the future. If your church plans a seasonal retreat or camping event, consider a Virtual Mission Trip instead. Or, build a trip specifically for your senior congregants to provide both social interaction and purposeful faith engagement during this time of isolation. There are lots of possibilities!
Planning a Virtual Mission Trip
To put together a program yourself, develop a timeline for your program – when will it happen and how much programming do you want to provide daily to your participants? Then choose a topic you will be studying and working on with your group. Popular mission trip topics include urban poverty, rural poverty, healthcare access, housing access, food access, racial injustice, and environmental sustainability.
Find educational content that offers your participants a deeper understanding of the topic, and emphasizes personal stories and multiple perspectives. Provide content in a variety of mediums such as videos, news articles, podcasts, e-books, artwork, interviews, panel discussions, and games (some good resources are offered at the bottom of this article). Offer pre-trip background information so your participants grasp the fundamentals of the issue before your Virtual Mission Trip.
Live generated Wordcloud from final Virtual Mission Trip Debrief
During your Virtual Mission Trip, explore different aspects of your topic. If you’re focusing on access to housing, take a day to discover how education influences access to housing. Spend another day exploring racial injustice in housing. Yet another day can delve into how local ordinances block affordable housing construction. Study how these issues intersect. Examine the context in your locality. Include at least one day focused on advocacy and show your participants how change is realized through specific sustained action to address root causes of problems. Partner with justice organizations addressing your topic to hear live from professionals and connect your participants to ongoing opportunities for justice action.
Include personal direct service projects for participants to complete at home. With enough forethought and planning, you can even provide supplies to your participants by drop-off or mail.
Open places for interaction and conversation among your participants such as video conference calls and discussion boards. Include worship and nightly debriefs to reflect with your team. Set check-in partners to keep people accountable and bounce thoughts off of each other, while fostering new relational connections between your participants. Conclude your trip with a call for continuing learning and action, along with concrete steps to do so.
Creating Access for All
In some ways, a Virtual Mission Trip opens up new pathways for access. Those with physical impairments may self-select out of a traditional mission trip focused on construction. Undocumented congregants are unlikely to sign up for a trip which departs the United States, or even visits places where their status might be checked. Some participants may opt out because they don’t want to sleep on the floor of a church basement, or a narrow uncomfortable bunk bed, or be too far from advanced medical facilities. Language barriers, travel anxieties, and financial means all weigh on participants as well. The format of a Virtual Mission Trip allows for much greater access in all of these cases when compared to a traditional mission trip.
However, connecting virtually comes with its own access challenges. When planning a virtual mission trip, you should consider whether all the potential participants have access to the internet and the devices needed to fully participate. Even if they have the technology, do they know how to use it? Providing instructional information may be required.
Participants with visual, auditory, or mental capacity impairments may be less well served in a virtual format.Though some accommodations do exist in the virtual sphere to meet the needs of these participants, this should be carefully considered during the initial planning stages of your Virtual Mission Trip.
The level of self-directed capacity of participants should also be carefully considered. Child and Youth participants may lack the planning skills and follow through to complete scheduled project tasks and attend group meetings without additional direction. As in all things related to youth ministry, parent buy-in goes a long way here.
Get It Started
Though this primer is certainly not exhaustive, it should provide a good launching point to begin planning a virtual mission trip. Conversations and collaboration among your community of practitioners will be critically important in the coming weeks and months. Your comments and discussion are welcome below.
As a participant of that conversation, Incredible Days offers customized experiential programming including Virtual Mission Trips. You can work with a professional who knows the ins and outs of faith formation and missional service. We have resources, connections and the right experience to bring a meaningful Virtual Mission Trip to life for you and your group. You can find more information on the Incredible Days website, or by calling us at 774-385-0337. We're also happy to provide a free "tour" of a Virtual Mission Trip to anyone who's interested. Simply email IncredibleDaysGroup@gmail.com.
I have written a blog article with some of my initial reflections from leading my first Virtual Mission Trip, which you can find here. Additionally, the following resources may be helpful to you in putting together your Virtual Mission Trip program:
Videoconferencing software – Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom
Educational & Inspiring videos – TED, Upworthy
Educational & Inspiring podcasts – Freakonomics, Revisionist History, American History Tellers
Advocacy Tools – Ballotpedia, Democracy.io
Online Worship Tools – BibleGateway, Mentimeter, Twitch, Discord